US publicly condemns Hamas, but privately rails at Israel

Colin Powell tells Palestinian Authority to rein-in Hamas and Israel to cease assassination attempts
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The Independent Online

Colin Powell told Palestinian leaders yesterday to take on the militant group Hamas and urged Israel to pull out of the Gaza Strip and curb assassinations of Palestinian militants.

General Powell, the US Secretary of State, was here to try to rescue the road-map peace plan personally backed by President George Bush, which calls for an independent Palestinian state by 2005. Hopes at the Aqaba summit this month that the peace process might finally move forward after two and a half years of bloodshed have since evaporated in yet another round of tit-for-tat violence.

General Powell pinned most of the blame for that violence on the Palestinian militant group Hamas yesterday, at least in public. "The enemy of peace has been Hamas," he said. As long as Hamas remained committed to violence, he added: "This is a problem we have to deal with in its entirety." The Secretary of State said that negotiating a ceasefire with Hamas, as Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, has been trying to do, was not enough.

General Powell said he was "anxious to speak to Abu Mazen about efforts they are making to bring violence under control, to end violence, not just through the means of having a cease-fire, but going beyond that ... to end violence and the capacity for violence".

Abu Mazen - whose real name is Mahmoud Abbas - has said he does not want to confront Hamas militarily. Many Palestinians fear that could lead to civil war, and General Powell was heckled at his press conference with Abu Mazen yesterday by Palestinians asking whether he wanted a Palestinian civil war.

Even during General Powell's brief visit here, the violence continued. One Israeli was killed in an ambush on a car in the West Bank by Palestinian gunmen. Three people were injured, including an elderly American couple who were here visiting family, after the car was fired on as it drove along a road used by Jewish settlers. A website linked to Hamas claimed responsibility on behalf of the group.

"President Bush is committed that we must ... keep moving forward and push through, blast through those who would try to stop us, who would try to keep us from our goal of peace through acts of violence and terror," General Powell said yesterday.

He held meetings with Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, Silvan Shalom, the Foreign minister, and Shaul Mofaz, the Defence minister, in Jerusalem. He also met with Abu Mazen in the West Bank city of Jericho.

Speaking after meeting with Mr Sharon, General Powell said: "The pace and urgency of our work needs to be maintained in order to capitalise quickly and decisively on this moment that history has given to us."

But Mr Sharon said: "As long as terror continues, as long as violence continues, as long as this terrible incitement continues, there will be no progress. There will be no peace with terror."

On Hamas, General Powell said: "We must make sure that all international pressure possible is brought to bear on these organisations, so that they know they will not succeed, they will not prevail, they will be dealt with."

There was a rebuke for Syria, which has clamped down on the activities of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups which have offices in Damascus, after coming under pressure from a threatening US in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. The measures Syria has taken against the militants' offices so far are "inadequate," General Powell said.

But while in public General Powell was laying all the blame for the recent violence at Hamas' door, it was clear that behind closed doors he was putting pressure on the Israelis as well.

It may have been all smiles for the cameras for General Powell and Mr Sharon, but the Secretary of State also made it clear that the US is far from happy with Mr Sharon over the spate of assassinations of Hamas leaders he ordered last week.

The worst of the recent violence was triggered by Israel's attempted assassination of Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, the most prominent leader of Hamas' political wing, which came even as Hamas leaders were talking about resuming ceasfire talks with Abu Mazen. The attempt was strongly criticised by the White House. After the botched assassination attempt, Hamas vowed to bomb Israel to "rubble" and carried out a suicide bombing in central Jerusalem that left 17 dead.

The US has been putting pressure on Israel to cease the assassination attempts. Israel is insisting it wants to continue the policy of assassinating what it calls "ticking bombs" - militants about to carry out an attack.

General Powell said yesterday: "When one goes beyond that and expands those kinds of activities to individuals or situations where it might not be a ticking bomb, then ... the consequences of such actions and how they play into our broader efforts for peace must be taken into consideration, and that is the position that we have discussed with the Israelis on many occasions".

General Powell said the focus of his talks with Abu Mazen was on getting Israel to withdraw its army from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem. The Palestinian Authority is negotiating with Israel for Palestinian security forces to take over in those areas, and the Secretary of State said that the sight of Palestinian security forces taking control might give Palestinians "confidence that organisations such as Hamas and other terrorist organisations perhaps do not have the right answer".

Abu Mazen, who was heavily crticised by Palestinians for making too conciliatory a speech in Aqaba, was more confrontational. He called on Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and said he was committed to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. He pinned the blame for the breakdown of the peace process since Aqaba on Israel, saying Israel had tightened its closure on the occupied territories recently, and was still demolishing Palestinian houses and building the "separation fence", a security fence which Abu Mazen said "separates people from their own land".

"Israel has to transform itself from a foe into a partner," Abu mazen said. "Israel has to change its method from the logic of confrontation to the logic of building peace."

General Powell's talks with Abu Mazen were held in Jericho to avoid any risk that the Secretary of State might run into Yasser Arafat, with whom the US is refusing to speak, which may happen if they were held in the Palestinian Authority's administrative centre.

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